By MARK LEYNER
June 3, 2009
I AM absolutely baffled as to why the announcement of a scientific advance heralding the advent of talking mice has not generated a peep from the chattering classes, particularly since it’s a story about chattering ... and chattering mice, to boot.
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have engineered a strain of mice that possesses the human FOXP2 gene, considered by evolutionary biologists to be among several crucial components that endow people with the capacity for speech. Already, the swap of mouse FOXP2 for human FOXP2 has altered the way the mice communicate with one another (their ultrasonic whistles have become slightly lower-pitched).
To me, it’s obvious that the Age of the Garrulous Rodent is at hand. Bear in mind that we’re not talking about sign language or the proverbial monkeys-at-the-keyboard here. We’re talking about a rat that’ll be able to sit down, look you in the eye and talk about the Sotomayor nomination or the Lakers-Magic series.
After millenniums of maintaining their evolutionary vow of silence, can you imagine — once the genetic gag has come off — how much these mice will have to say? The din of mouse prattle will deafen the planet. And don’t think this is going to stop with just mice. We all know how uncontainable technological innovation is.
If you think I’m just being cynical and churlish about all this, imagine that you’re walking down the street, minding your own business, and a dog looks up and says: “You didn’t intern at Cleary Gottlieb, did you? Summer of ’97? You look so familiar.” Do you really want to have to have a conversation with every puggle you encounter? Isn’t it hard enough already to avoid meaningless conversations with people you don’t know?
Sure, there will be the elation of that initial “Doolittle moment.” Ah — the animals will have such wisdom to impart. I imagine that speaking will lead to writing, and writing will lead inexorably to screenplays. And who could resist a remake of “101 Dalmatians” written by actual Dalmatians? But chances are there will be the same ratio of banality to profundity as there is with people. There’ll be a lot of complaining about their minor ailments, endless talk about their own kids, grousing about their mates, etc.
There will also be fundamental philosophical implications — Heidegger’s notion that animals can’t truly experience death because they lack language will have to be completely reassessed, for example. And, perhaps of more immediate consequence, there will be serious economic repercussions, particularly for meat processors. All it will take is one talking cow on “Oprah,” chronicling the horrors of the slaughterhouse, and beef consumption worldwide will cease immediately. (Ditto, some erudite chicken on “The Charlie Rose Show.”)
Most nightmarish to me — and I’m speaking only for myself here — is the prospect of talking insects. You know that time of night when you’re lying in bed and you’re beset by unpleasant thoughts, by all manner of regrets and doubts and self-abasement? I’ve been an inattentive husband. I was too laissez-faire with my kids when they were young. I haven’t really accomplished anything I intended to in my life. That sort of stuff? Imagine some mosquito maliciously egging you on. Or imagine that you walk into the kitchen for a midnight snack, turn the light on, and there’s an enormous water bug in the middle of the floor. As you raise your rolled-up magazine for the death blow, the bug looks up at you plaintively and says: “Dude, please. I’ve got a family. Let me go. You’ll never see me again. I swear to God.”
O.K., granted, FOXP2 is only one of the so-called “language genes,” many of which remain to be discovered. But it’s obvious to me that we’re already on the slippery slope to animal eloquence.
As punishment for giving fire to mankind, Prometheus was chained to a cliff, where an eagle gnawed at his liver every day. I can only say to the researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology that, for helping give animals the gift of gab, and creating the very real possibility of snidely murmuring mosquitoes and cockroaches able to plead for their lives, you may all deserve an even harsher fate: being chained to a cliff and talked to death by an eagle that just won’t shut up.